Directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Sam Spruell, Jack Lowden and Alex Jennings.
In 1970s London, police harassment of a crucial community hub for local Black people leads to a peaceful protest, which ends up in a court room.
Steve McQueen is effectively a lucky charm for LFF at this point. His Widows opened the festival to a rousing reception in 2018 and now, two years later, the masterful British filmmaker is bringing two parts of his TV movie anthology Small Axe to the capital. The first of these is this year’s opener Mangrove, which follows the discrimination and ultimate prosecution of a group of Black activists who congregated around the eponymous restaurant in the 1960s and 1970s.
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is the proprietor of the establishment, which has opened to serve food to the West Indian community of Notting Hill. Among the regular patrons are Black Panther Party figurehead Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and law student Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). Amid increasingly violent raids orchestrated by thuggish cop PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), Frank agrees to allow Altheia to use the Mangrove for her meetings, but notes that “this is a restaurant, not a battleground”. The community eventually decides to take a stand, but police tactics turn the protest into a violent clash.
The story of the Mangrove Nine is one that is unforgivably little known in British culture, given its importance as the first trial in which a judge explicitly noted evidence of racial prejudice within the Metropolitan Police. McQueen’s movie thrums with anger, not just at the historic injustice on display, but at how little progress has been made since then. Police brutality born of racial prejudice remains a very present issue – this year more than most – and the hot fury of Mangrove seethes within the bloodstream of just about any right-minded person in 2020.
McQueen’s filmmaking is typically muscular here, conveying the energy and warmth of the West Indian community and contrasting that with the cold hatred of the police officers exploiting a system which is, in Frank’s words, “crooked as a damn ram’s horn”. There’s a joyous intimacy to McQueen’s camera, roving among Mangrove patrons smoking and singing, or allowing the colour and beauty of a Notting Hill Carnival song and dance in the street to play out in all of its glory. For a film so focused on wrongness, Mangrove is impressive in its ability to find the light in the story and the richness of the people it depicts.
But that’s not to say that there’s anything soft about the storytelling. This is a movie that knows when to play things subtly – an eerily silent shot of a discarded colander becomes legitimately chilling – and when to swing for the fences. Letitia Wright notably benefits from the latter, delivering a grandstanding monologue about how “we have to stick together as a collective”, despite legal obstacles mounting in their path. Her bottom lip quivers and tears stream from her eyes, but her words are defiant, incisive and land with real punch. It’s a standout performance in an ensemble packed with memorable turns. Malachi Kirby deserves credit for his work as the whip-smart Darcus, while Rochenda Sandall is a coiled spring of very believable righteous anguish as Barbara Beese.
All of these performances are held together around the quiet stoicism of Parkes’s Crichlow – the accidental figurehead of the West Indian community. He’s not in it for the fight or for the politics, but out of a genuine belief that his business is important and deserves to be respected. It’s a performance of deep sensitivity and underplayed turmoil, with Frank remaining mostly silent as the court room frequently descends into anarchy and passion. In a drama that focuses on the human cost of ideological battles, he’s the emotional fulcrum keeping McQueen’s storytelling fire ablaze.
Mangrove will attract all of the buzz words about being “relevant” and “vital” that critics have to offer, and it deserves all of them. But first and foremost, this is a powerful story of a community who were backed into a corner from which they had to fight out. It was relevant then, it’s relevant now and it’ll be relevant for as long as Black people still face structural inequality and systemic violence. To further that conversation, cinema needs to know when to make a nuanced argument and when to yell its point to the rafters. Mangrove does both, and it does them brilliantly.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.